It should be stipulated without reservation that U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was one of the most important civil rights heroes of the 1960s. He sacrificed not only his personal safety but helped to lead a movement that brought America into line with its own founding, ideals, and aspirations. As we commemorate the broad life and scope of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life today, it is beyond worthwhile to reflect upon and learn (or re-learn) that history.
It should also be stipulated, however, that as “civil rights activist John Lewis” became “congressman and politician John Lewis,” his subsequent words and actions should be open to debate, questioning, and even criticism. Nothing he fought for in the 1960s should grant him immunity from the same kind of criticism every other elected or public figure is subject to when they make a bad call or wrong vote. Few, for example, hesitate to criticize Jesse Jackson for his political comments and actions, even though he, too, was a hero of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. And Martin Luther King, Jr.’s best friend and colleague, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, was certainly subject to a great deal of criticism within his own community when he endorsed Ronald Reagan for president.
This brings us to the dispute between John Lewis and Donald Trump. Lewis’s comment that Trump is not “a legitimate president” is both absurd and wrong. Any man or woman willing to subject himself or herself to the election processes, as well as the debating and voting processes of the U.S. House of Representatives, should be the first to recognize that when you say something controversial, you will and should be answered, if not criticized. I, for one, think John Lewis should be daily criticized for his opposition to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Lewis’s claim about Donald Trump’s legitimacy is based on Russian hacking of DNC emails. But a question few seem willing to ask, much less be able to prove is, “Is there a single vote that was moved from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump because of the release of those emails?”
A thought experiment on the impact of these emails: 1) Raise the issue with a Hillary supporter; heck, raise it with Trump supporter. 2) Then ask what the worst or most memorable leaked email stated. 3) My best guess is that most people (i.e., voters—not political professionals and journalists) will not be able to identify or recall the specificity of a single one. 4) Even if my guess is wrong, and the emails are recalled, follow up by asking if any of them changed their vote as a result of reading them. My bet is nobody changed their vote as a result of the Wikileaks releases and—entertaining and damning as they were—they changed the election outcome not one bit.
To my own mind, the one that sticks out the most is the one the professional journalist community seemed to care about the least: a CNN contributor using her position with CNN to help the Hillary campaign in debate preparation, revealing to the Clinton campaign the questions before the debate. After this was revealed, said CNN contributor, Donna Brazile, became the interim-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. But, again, that any of this changed one vote is likely untrue and wholly unprovable.
In the end, Lewis’s feeding the narrative that the president-elect is illegitimate is not only factually wrong, it perpetuates the corruption of our political discourse and the paranoid style of American politics that Democrats are usually the first to denounce. Are we not continually reminded that “democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity—the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together”? Of the necessity to occasionally “concede that your opponent might be making a fair point”? That we should not “make common ground and compromise impossible”? Those are President Barack Obama’s words from his farewell address last week.
Still, there are some who continue to embrace the Lewis line, writing that Donald Trump “will wear that scarlet ‘I’ on [his] tan chest for as long as [he sits] in the White House.” Others maintain that Wikileaks altered the outcome of the election. Both are wrong. Both require denouncing. And if the mainstream media—which was complicit in publishing the leaks—won’t call political leaders on this, Donald Trump has every right to. Personal and political history, after all—no matter how noble, no matter how crucial—does not constitute an indemnity from the First Amendment. And that’s a legacy of equality, too.